Exploring a Western Wonderland
Unlike the phoenix of mythology, I have not emerged from the ashes of retirement. Instead, I have emerged from a redeye aircraft directly from Phoenix, Ariz., to Charlotte.
That was several days ago, and I’m almost recovered from a week of travel through Nevada and California, crammed with natural beauty and intriguing history. Nor did we encounter smoke from fires destroying vast areas of other Western states. In fact, skies were a steady blue, the sun a constant companion.
I traveled with the NatureScene group sponsored by the ETV Endowment of South Carolina, the nonprofit that spearheads public television fundraising in our neighboring state. Naturalist Rudy Mancke, who for years led television fans through nature romps via the popular “NatureScene” program, again accompanied us, with his wife, Ellen. If there is a question about a bird, tree, insect, mammal, other flora or fauna, Rudy knows the answer.
Many of the birds are the same species we see on the East Coast — the red-winged blackbird, for example, or the osprey or killdeer. We also saw white pelicans, California gulls, scrub jays, Steller’s jay, an acorn woodpecker, California quail, a great blue heron, downy woodpecker, red-breasted sapsucker, phoebe, crows, ravens and one of my backyard favorites, the purple finch.
Rudy identified a Western toad (a big one) and a zebra-tailed lizard. There was a paucity of snakes, and large mammals were shy this time, although one member of our group did spot a bear from the bus window. Smaller mammals, including the little pika, were much in evidence.
On such a trip, it’s hard to pin down a favorite spot — the boat ride across Lake Tahoe, skirting the deepest point (our captain said you could submerge two-and-a-half lengths of the Empire State Building there), our tram ride through Yosemite National Park, another tram ride through the awe-inspiring sequoias in Mariposa Grove, our stops at Donner National State Park, and the Marshall gold discovery spot.
I probably enjoyed an alpine meadow as much as any place, because of the mind-boggling variety of wildflowers.
Then there was the fascinating Mono Lake. Here we saw a moonscape of towering tufas at water’s edge and learned that the area on which we walked was once water — that is, until the city of Los Angeles drew water from other sources, leading to an inevitable lowering of the water level. Efforts are under way to correct that. The water, saltier than the ocean, teems with tiny brine shrimp that provide a feast for California gulls.
At Yosemite, I stopped to catch my breath before heading back up the trail for an up-close view of Yosemite Falls. It was worth the long wait. I was often out of breath. This flatlander is unaccustomed to altitudes up to 10,000 feet.
Our travels took us from mighty heights of sheer granite to alpine desert, from golden poppies to the brilliant yellow of blazing star on the shore at Pyramid Lake. At times our bus followed the edge of such steep inclines that I was tempted to close my eyes, but I didn’t. The view was simply too thrilling.
From a personal standpoint, a highlight was a reunion with old friends now living in Southern California. Andreas and Christa Bartha drove to Reno from their Buena Park home, booked into our hotel and treated Elaine Freeman, my traveling companion, and me to dinner two nights.
I met Andreas 50-plus years ago when he came to Laurinburg after the unsuccessful anti-communist uprising in his native Hungary. I interviewed him for The Laurinburg Exchange, and my husband and I became friends with the optimistic and talented man. A skilled machinist, Andreas later made his own mark as a design machinist in California, where he met Christa, an au pair from Germany. Today they are gracious citizens enjoying the American dream, which includes widespread travel and affection for old friends.
So often have I traveled with NatureScene that these trips are reminiscent of reunions. That includes our favorite guide, Sally Bell, who calls on her past vocation of history teacher to enlighten us about the stories behind the stories of the Native Americans and the early settlers of the West.
One humorous incident is worth recounting. At one of our stops, a raccoon climbed to the third floor of the hotel, opened the screen door from the balcony and helped itself to a bunch of bananas. It wasn’t our room, but it could have been.
It reminds me that nature is never far away, regardless of where you live or travel.
Florence Gilkeson retired early this year after a long news career with The Pilot. She lives in Laurinburg.
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